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Organic farmer Patrick Thiel shows the yellow inside of a red-skinned Valery potato Wednesday, Oct. 2, at his farm near Joseph. The Valery is one of many he grows there and markets to high-end Portland restaurants, as well as sells at local farmers markets. Thiel has been able to keep his workers employed during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the willingness of the local community to buy his produce and with a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

Wallowa County residents — and others — are continuing to fill the local food bank coffers as Community Connection strives to help feed those in need with donations of food and money to buy it.

Just Monday, May 4, a local couple gave a $500 check to Rich Wandschneider, president of the Rotary Club of Wallowa County, to purchase more potatoes for the Great Potato Drive, said Randi Jandt, Rotary spokeswoman.

This is the sixth week the club has purchased potatoes for the food bank for a total of 3,000 pounds.

“So we have another week for the food bank,” Jandt said.

She said that in addition to locals, donations have come from as far away as Reno, Nevada, and Portland.

“People have donated as much as $200 that way,” she said.

Jandt said she recently checked in with the La Grande hub of the Oregon Food Bank, from which the local branch receives food, and asked if the regional hub still needed Wallowa County potatoes.

“They are able to use every potato,” she was told.

In addition to helping Wallowa County, the regional hub puts the potatoes in supplies it sends for food boxes and Meals on Wheels to 18 other regional food pantries, Jandt said.

The local farm that has benefited from the potato drive is the organic Prairie Creek Farm owned by Patrick Thiel, of Joseph. He still has potatoes in storage from last year’s crop.

Jandt said she’s checked with other county farms but has found none with produce to spare.

“They’re not quite producing enough,” she said. “It’s still early in the season.”

Thiel said he’s been providing about 500 pounds of potatoes a week to the food bank.

He said he has Anoushka yellow, Reba round white, Huckleberry Gold, All-Blue and Spartan Splash varieties that the Rotary Club buys at $1 a pound for the food bank. The Hurricane Creek Grange in Joseph also has been buying Thiel’s spuds to donate, he said.

Although that’s far below what he would normally sell to the 35 high-end Portland-area restaurants that were the mainstays of his market before the pandemic — only two of them still take his spuds — it’s enough to keep him going and, along with a Paycheck Protection Program loan, keep a couple workers employed.

He said he had to lay off his workers for about three weeks, but was able to re-employ them and purchase some seed after taking out a loan on his tractor while waiting for the PPP loan to come through.

In the meantime, some of his crop is rotting in the warehouse.

“I’ve probably lost $25,000 to $30,000 of my crop because of the shutdown from not being able to market them in a timely fashion,” Thiel said.

But, he said, being cut off from his usual market is providing new opportunities.

“It’s kind of creating new system by doing more local marketing,” he said.

He’s also working to get more of his crop into local retail sales.

“I’ve worked on trying get more markets, but that takes time,” he said. “Under the circumstances, everybody’s markets are disrupted.”

Farming is never an easy profession, he noted, adding that there are always problems with markets, equipment and financing a producer must face. But he acknowledges the support of the community.

“Efforts by Randi Jandt, the Hurricane Creek Grange and the Rotary have kept me going … but business expenses don’t stop,” he said.

Thiel recognizes how Wallowa County comes together as a community to take care of its own.

“I just think the community is amazing, the kindness and sacrifice for others in people who live here,” he said. “It’s been wonderful to see.”

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